Year of Invention: 1793
What Is It? A machine that separates cotton fibers from seeds.
Who Invented It? Eli Whitney and Catherine Greene (in Mulbury Grove,
The cotton gin revolutionized cotton production and saved the Southern economy. It saved Southern plantation agriculture and helped to preserve the institution of Southern slavery for at least three generations. The cotton gin raised cotton to king and made the South rich.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, giant English spinning mills were eagerly gobbling up every ounce of cotton Southern plantations could produce. Growing cotton was easy in the warm Southern climate.
The problem came during harvesting. Picking each boll (cotton pod) by hand left the picker’s hands raw and bloody. Worse, separating cotton fibers from seeds (ginning) was slow, hard work that consumed tremendous amounts of time. Ginning kept most slaves out of the field for much of the day. Picking slowed to a crawl, and much of each year’s cotton crop was left to rot in the fields unpicked. Plantations often made no profit on their vast fields of cotton.
By age 27, Massachusetts born Eli Whitney had tried law, teaching, and running his own metal works forge making nails and pins. But nothing lasted. Early in 1792, he was invited to visit the Georgia plantation of Revolutionary War hero General Nathanael Greene. Greene died shortly after the war and left the Mulbury Grove plantation to his capable wife, Catherine Greene.
Mrs. Greene was impressed when Whitney made a series of repairs and mechanical improvements around the plantation and built a new embroidery frame that was the envy of Catherine’s friends.